Mar 18, 2010, 12.54 PM | Source: Forbes India
Destiny willed it to be an agricultural laggard. But Gujarat is today a farming paradise
The result is obvious everywhere, but nowhere more so than in the 500-acre farm of the Patel brothers in Dolpur in the district of Sabarkantha, in the northeast of the state. Jitesh and Bhavesh, both having done masters in agricultural science, have managed to bring together plots owned by family members and friends and grow potato with modern techniques. They contract out their future production to Balaji, ITC and Pepsi. Their high yields have won them admirers. Each week, their farm sees at least 300 visitors from the state as well as Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, keen to learn their key to success. The brothers now act as consultants to other farmers. Very soon, the Patels will be investing Rs. 4 crore on a greenhouse to grow capsicum, tomatoes and muskmelons.
Gujarat has also stepped up its extension services significantly in the last decade, taking knowledge from research campuses to the farms. In the last five years, Krushi Mahotsavs (Farm Festivals) have grown in scope. As many as 18,600 villages host the event on the Akshaya Tritiya day (an auspicious day in the Hindu Calendar falling in May-June). University professors, government officers and even ministers are required to spend time with farmers, listening to their problems and developing solutions. While the quality of work in these fairs needs to improve according to farmers, and the researchers need to gain more practical experience, their impact in spreading awareness about things such as soil quality is undeniable.
But the big change in Gujarat has come from the conservation of the most crucial resource for farming – water.
Gujarat started by planning large dam projects such as Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) to achieve a breakthrough in agriculture. To this day, its progress remains limited. Only a small portion of the potential command area has been covered with irrigation facilities. The canal irrigation system of Gujarat, while improving, is not adequate for its needs. To take water to the really dry areas, the Narmada dam’s height must be raised which the government is trying to accomplish. However, even that high-cost strategy will not be enough to fulfil the demand for water. “Agriculture suffered for centuries in Gujarat primarily because it did not have water,” says P.K. Laheri, formerly chief secretary of Gujarat and managing director of Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam and now a director with Torrent Power. “It improved when we began taking the waters of the Narmada to irrigate our fields. Then, when the dam was built, more land came under cultivation. But a lot of land continues to be rain-fed.”
That’s why Gujarat has embarked on a major exercise to conserve water and use it more efficiently in the fields. The most important turning point in the state’s agriculture has been the innovative management of its groundwater resources. The state has adopted a combination of rainwater harvesting – that traps water that would otherwise drain away – and micro irrigation – that supplies each drop of water more efficiently and directly to the plant. The movement has been a roaring success and stories abound of conversion of barren lands into fertile farms, rising yields and falling costs of cultivation across the state.
Between 2001 and 2006, Chief Minister Narendra Modi ordered the building of check dams wherever possible. His slogan was that rain water in the fields should remain there and the water in rivulets should remain there too. There was little sense in letting all this water drain into the sea. The strategy worked. And farmers began to see a rise in water tables year after year. Modi also streamlined the supply of electricity to water pumps. Because they were getting subsidised power, farmers had little incentive to save on its use or keep pumps in good order to lower power consumption. As a result, much power was wasted. Also, power theft was widely prevalent. Further, farmers faced the problem of low-voltage power that helped nobody.